Detroit Tigers Preview

Monday, February 23 2004 @ 09:44 AM EST

Contributed by: Craig B

I sat the whole Batter's Box Roster down last month and we talked about the Tigers' chances in 2004 and beyond. This is the first of 30 team previews Batter's Box will be running over the next month or so.


Detroit Tigers Preview
by Craig Burley, with the Batter's Box Roster

43-119 record591 runs scored, 13th in AL
5th in AL Central928 runs allowed, 13th in AL
Pythagorean Record : 49-113

Jim Seymour put it very well recently over on Baseball Primer : the Tigers are not yet in rebuilding, but rather are in triage. I think that's right... normally, when you look at a team that goes 65-97 and 69-92 the two years before moving into a new park (as the Tigers did) you are at the bottom of a rebuilding cycle. That never happened. In the four years since moving into Comerica Park:

2000 - 79-83
2001 - 66-96
2002 - 55-106
2003 - 43-119

This team, clearly, is not yet rebuilding, but trying to staunch the flow of blood and get back on its feet. Rebuilding can come when there is talent in the system... the Tigers' minor league affiliates went 332-358; their best power hitter in the minors was 34-year-old Ernie Young. Most of the Tigers' best prospects were actually in the majors last year (4 of the top 5 pre-season prospects according to Baseball America spent most or all of the year in Detroit) and those who weren't mostly played poorly.

Players AcquiredPlayers Lost
C Ivan RodriguezSS Ramon Santiago
P Jason JohnsonIF Shane Halter
OF Rondell WhiteC Matt Walbeck
P Al LevineP Cliff Bartosh
2B Fernando Vina3B/DH Dean Palmer
C Mike DiFeliceOF Gene Kingsale
P Esteban Yan
IF Greg Norton
3B John Gizzi
IF Pablo Ozuna
SS Carlos Guillen

The Tigers have been very active in the offseason seeking free agent tourniquets, and I think they've done rather well. The list of incoming and outgoing players looks like a substantial net gain, especially taking into account the signing of Ivan Rodriguez to a . Every area should be improved by these signings. The infield, the outfield, the rotation, the bullpen, and the catching (even if Rodriguez hadn't been signed, DiFelice is an improvement) will all have more talent in 2004. Even the players lost (Walbeck, Halter, Santiago) may well improve the Tigers, because they performed so poorly that even minor-league free agent talent would be an improvement.

Back in January, before the Rodriguez deal was finalized, I sat the Batter's Box authors down and we had a group discussion on the State Of The Tigers. My lead question to the Batter's Box guys was - are the Tigers moving in the right direction, or are they stumbling around in a daze? And what would moves would you do if you were (shudder to think) Dave Dombrowski?

SPICOL : Signing expensive free agents like Pudge is a waste of cash considering that even the best of players can only improve a team by 5-10 wins. As Pat Gillick was fond of saying, buying established players should be the final move toward a championship roster, not the first.

SCOTT LUCAS : 4 and $40 for Pudge is ridiculous... but I sympathize. Sure, the rejoinder to any FA signing is: "Well, that only gets them to 50-55 wins." Well, they have to start somewhere. Attendance at Comerica has fallen 44% in three years, and the Tigers won only 29 home games last year. Just getting to where they can play .450 ball at home would be a major accomplishment.

ROBERT DUDEK : I'm not a big fan of trying to sign Pudge to a 4-year deal. The odds of him surviving without a major injury in that time is small, and I think 2007 is the earliest this club can expect to field a contender (an 85-win ballclub or better). Better to invest cash in
the farm system, draft and arbitration buyouts of a couple of key players. Dombrowski should try shopping Dmitri Young (a good hitter who plays at the wrong end of the spectrum) for prospects.

SPICOL : What the Tigers really need to do is actually develop their young players and stop using them to fill gaps at the Major League level. Under Randy Smith and even still with Dombrowski, the Tigers didn't use Toledo, their AAA franchise as it should be used. Toledo was a dumping ground for all of the organizational players and almost all of their "ML ready" prospects were housed in AA. Prospects routinely skipped AAA when called to the bigs - Matt Anderson, Franklyn German, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Cornejo, Brandon Inge, Fernando Rodney and Eric Munson were all in Detroit before being given an opportunity to play a substantial amount of time in AAA or any at all.

Filling the Major League roster with NRI players and cheap free agents until the kids can develop is probably the way to go for the next 3-4 years. Once Carlos Pena, Eric Munson and Jeremy Bonderman are solid major leaguers and the young players have grown in a complementary fashion, then Dombrowski can put cash on the barrel for free agents. Sure, the team will be awful for the near future and Comerica will continue to be two-thirds empty but how is that any different from today? Everything the team does today should be toward a successful 2007. If that includes saving money on the major league roster to pay the Kyle Sleeths of the world, then so be it.

ROBERT DUDEK : Hopefully, the Tigers are through signing the likes of Dean Palmer and Bobby Higginson to mammoth deals and, with all the high draft picks, the farm system might start producing good players in 3 years (much like TB has started to do).

SCOTT LUCAS : For a team to play this badly is a singular event in the Free Agent Era.
We're witnesses to history!

I second the idea of signing FAs to one-year deals in the hope of flipping them for prospects during the season. Would that Detroit had done so. All of their major FA signings (Johnson, White and Vina) were two-year deals. The Vina deal galls me. Is he $2.7 million better than Warren Morris? Is he better than Morris at all? This is Case Example #1 of what the team
should NOT be doing.

To my knowledge, Detroit has no exorbitant contracts aside from Higginson and Dmitri Young. Higginson will receive $8.85 this season and a staggering $11.85 the next. Young gets a hair over $7 each of the next two years. Young, at least, earned his money last year, but his OPS+ had never surpassed 119 before last year's 142. Odds are he regresses. Like Colorado, Detroit anxiously awaits September 2005, when the old-era contracts disappear.

ROBERT DUDEK : I've just finished reading The Curse of Rocky Colavito by Terry Pluto. One of the things Pluto mentions is the trades the Indians made in the early '90s which helped them build their great teams. The key deal was acquiring Baerga (and Sandy Alomar) for established vet Joe Carter. If the Tigers can pull something off like that with Dmitri Young, or one of the vets they've signed this off-season during the course of 2004, and get really good prospects back, that might vault them into contention sooner than we expect.

GERRY MACDONALD : Yes, I would follow what Dombrowski seems to be doing. Sign some good major league talent to one year deals and hope to trade them in summer for a prospect or two. Major free agent signings (Pudge) are stop gaps for now as they will likely be gone before the Tigers challenge again.

MIKE DENYSZYN : Much like the Rockies' ability to flip hitters who put up ridiculous Coors stats for value, the Tigers should be able to "churn" pitchers whose numbers will be aided by park effects. I would take some NRI chances specifically on HR-prone vets. As the deadline approaches, Dombrowski might be able to make a Suppan-style deal. (Mind you, Jose Lima sure didn't work out in the D-Ro.)

They need to add some semblance of a power dimension, badly, to their lineup. They don't walk, but there's no reason for pitchers to nibble against them because of their lack of pop. With Comerica Park, they'll never compete with Texas or Boston for home runs...but there's no obvious excuse for being last in the league in doubles. They strike out a lot, which is costly when not accompanied by slugging.

If they can't put together a team with sock in that ballpark, then employing the running game is OK -- but not if they do it as foolishly as they did last season. They were tied for fifth in the league in steals, but first in the AL in caught stealing. Put differently, the D-Rays -- who weren't all that much better on paper last season, but were a lot less fun to face -- stole 44 more bases and were caught 21 *fewer* times.

GERRY MACDONALD : I think the Tigers situation has some similarities to what J.P. Ricciardi faced when he took over the Blue Jays. A team that has not made the playoffs, that does not look like it will, that does not have a clear sense of what it stands for, and a farm system that needs some work. Obviously the Tigers are in a much deeper hole but I think if you want to look at making the playoffs Dombrowski has to start with the farm system. A strong farm system gives you either players or trade bait. Dombrowski needs both. Last year one of the Tigers many problems was a lack of tradeable players. If we accept that the Tigers are at least three years from challenging for a playoff spot then we need to work with that timeline in mind.

The Tigers need to build a strong farm system, and the Tigers top 10 prospects from spring 2003 as selected by Baseball America did not have a good 2003. Bonderman and Infante made the major league team, but nearly all others struggled or were injured. There does not appear to be a lot of help on the horizon. So my recommendation would be to select college players in the draft. As JP has shown us these picks have less risk and can get to the big leagues more quickly than high school picks.

JORDAN FURLONG : Like Gerry suggested, it's even worse than it appears for Los Tigres. Here's how their ten best minor leaguers (according to BA) coming into 2003 fared last year.

1. Jeremy Bonderman, RHP, 20, MLB: 6-19, 5.56
2. Preston Larrison, RHP, 22, AA: 4-12, 5.61
3. Franklyn German, RHP, 23, MLB: 2-4, 6.04, 5 Sv
4. Omar Infante, SS/2B, 21 MLB: .222/.278/.258 AAA: .223/.299/.295
5. Eric Munson, 1B/3B, 25, MLB: .240/.312/.441
6. Scott Moore, 3B, 19, Low-A: .239/.325/.363
7. Nook Logan, OF, 23, AA: .251/.316/.333, 37 SB
8. Rob Henkel, LHP, 25, AA: 9-3, 3.38 (25 in Double-A?)
10. Anderson Hernandez, SS, 20, High-A: .229/.278/.295

And their top draft pick, Kyle Sleeth, held out for a $3.35M signing bonus and didn't pitch all year. It's disturbing enough that two of their top ten were 25 years old last year, and that three of them spent the year overmatched in the majors. But consider the combined BB/K rate of the hitters on that list: 266/523. They're overmatched at every level.

I haven't yet seen BA's 2004 Tigers top ten, but I can't imagine it's gotten a whole lot better. [Editor's note : Baseball America's 2004 Tigers Top Ten is now available online for subscribers.] Even with a smart, college-oriented draft that would start this June, I can't see the Tigers producing solid homegrown players for at least three years, which means Tiger fans should look forward to 90- and even 100-loss seasons almost to the end of the decade.

MIKE DENYSZYN : As far as drafting hitters goes -- and the Tigers need hitters on all levels -- I wouldn't rigidly adhere to Gerry's suggestion to draft college players. Taking signability issues out of the equation for a moment, I wouldn't have any problem with a very-high-ceiling HS hitter with the #1 pick in the '04 draft, or in their certain-to-be excellent picks in the next couple of drafts. The Tigers need a jolt as a franchise, and if they can land a potential superstar from HS, they can afford to be patient. I guess the more concise way to put it is "best player available," at any position and from any source.

JOHN NEARY : I'm with Mike D on drafting. The Tigers have no impact players on their major league roster and no terribly exciting prospects in the minors. They are precisely the sort of team that should embrace a high-risk, high-reward drafting strategy.

MIKE DENYSZYN : There's an argument for college emphasis in Detroit. You could look at the division and argue that some excellent college drafts might vault the club into semi-contention in the near term, against four clubs that won't spend freely. But in my opinion, even if you assume that the AL Central will continue to suck, competing with the other small fish shouldn't be the longer-term goal of the Tigers. They need an influx of talent, period, and if it means looking to Latin America or the prep ranks... hey, why not?

JOHN NEARY : The Jays were in a completely different situation when Ricciardi was hired in 2001. Their biggest need was to jettison overpriced mediocrities and middle-of-the-road guys so that they could keep their stars around. Ricciardi doesn't get nearly enough credit for the speed and precision of his house-cleaning.

The Jays weren't rebuilding from the ground up, and they had a few prospects coming through the pipeline. It made sense for them to go with a low-risk strategy of drafting college players because they already had a talented nucleus around which to build and they wanted guys who could get to the majors quickly. But if they hadn't had Delgado or FLop or Hudson or Phelps or Wells or Doc or Escobar around, I think they might have taken more chances with their first-round picks, as I think the Tigers should do in the years to come.

JORDAN FURLONG : This organization reminds me of Paul Freeman's line to Karen Allen when she was trying to escape the tents in Raiders of the Lost Ark: "The desert runs for 30 miles in every direction."

GERRY MACDONALD : There is the budget and attendance question. This brings up the chicken or egg question: do the Tigers sign players to be mildly competitive and hope to keep attendance reasonable, or do you focus on player development at the expense of on field results, and perhaps attendance? I think Tigers attendance was good last year, considering the on field performance, so I would manage more for the long term.

ROBERT DUDEK : I think it is crucial to field a team that will be at least respectable. The "New Ballpark" effect has nearly exhausted itself, which means that the Tigers will have to draw fans on merit. Continuing to lose 100+ games will destroy much of the fan base and that will mean Tampa Bay-like revenues.

A 65-97 season should be their target in 2004, and 73-89 in 2005. Carlos Guillen, Jason Johnson, Fernando Vina and Rondell White are decent stop gaps. Dmitri Young and Carlos Pena can be counted on to produce, while one of the youngsters (Infante, Sanchez) will likely improve enough to be adequate.

MIKE DENYSZYN : Even with the left field fence being moved in a bit, the Tigers still play in a unique park. Detroit really needs to address their outfield defence, and their CF defence in particular. It'll give them the flexibility to add flyball pitchers (if otherwise effective) to their staff.

ROBERT DUDEK : I like Alex Sanchez in centrefield. He ought to cover a lot of ground out there once he gets comfortable. With the right coaching, he could produce .350 OBPs. They would then need to find a big bat for the other corner outfielder slot, preferably 2 if they can trade Young.

They ought to be asking the Jays about Gabe Gross, though I don't know what they have that would entice Toronto to trade Gross.

JORDAN FURLONG : I'd take Bonderman [for Gross]....

MIKE DENYSZYN : How did Sanchez do defensively last year -- either through subjective evaluations or UZR, DER, etc.?

CRAIG B : Sanchez has done well according to UZR... he is +7 runs over average per 162 games in his 222-game career in centerfield (but -5 runs in his arm rating, indicating either that guys take the extra base on him, or more likely he has to make a lot of deep throws because of his park and pitching staff). That squares with my only impression of Sanchez which is that he runs REALLY fast. I don't know how quick a jump he gets, haven't seen him enough.

ROBERT DUDEK : Diamond Mind rates him AVERAGE range, POOR throwing arm.

I look for Bonderman to improve this year and for Fernando Rodney to become a premier reliever over the next few years. Cody Ross is one of the few good prospects in the minors, but I don't expect him to contribute until 2005.

CRAIG B : Yes, Bonderman should improve. I thought the fact he was able to survive at 20, given all the pressure, was pretty impressive. He definitely is learning how to battle hitters - I wonder though if he might turn a bit gunshy though.

His "most-similar" at age 20 is very interesting... not that I put a lot of stock in these things, but it was another Detroit starter, Fred Hutchinson, a guy who missed *five* years due to the war right after that age-20 season. Hutchinson was actually famous as a superb control pitcher - at a time when control pitchers routinely got their butts handed to them, but he had a terrific career.

Bonderman, for his part, really impressed me with his control and still managed to strike out six per nine innings. I think with a better defense behind him, he'd have been much, much better. He does seem to feel the pressure with men on base - he had an absurd number of wild pitches, though of course the Tiger catchers probably didn't help him any.

ROBERT DUDEK : Bonderman has a great curveball, he could become a righthanded Barry Zito. But I worry about his development. It seems that players, particularly pitchers, don't seem to develop well in struggling organisations. The Tigers will have to break the cycle of failed prospects if they are to contend within 5-7 years.

MIKE MOFFATT : Florida manager Jack McKeon called the Tigers "lousy". Here's Dmitri Young's response from a story:

"He's got to realize we're just one or two players away from doing what he did last year... He must be thinking of the Detroit Tigers from the mid-90s or something. I don't know."

You can't write better comedy!

MICK DOHERTY : I was going to reply, "Sure, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Prior," but then thought... hmmm, put those two guys on the Tigers and they finish, what, 68-94?

DAVE TILL : I think that the Tigers will find it fairly easy to bounce back to about 90 losses or so - they'll sign a couple of free agents, and seem to be inviting everybody and their grandmother to spring training. Plus, they're in the AL Central, which is not exactly a division filled with heavyweights.

Going higher than that will be a challenge - they don't have much in their farm system. Basically, they're starting from ground zero, just like an expansion team, and will need a full rebuilding cycle to climb out of that pit.

CRAIG B : So, predictions for 2004? I will start by saying I think the Tigers will win 65 games.


ROBERT DUDEK : My pick is 67 wins with Pudge.

SPICOL : 62 wins avec Pudge.

SCOTT LUCAS : 57 wins. 660 runs scored, 890 runs allowed. Or so my computer tells me.

COACH : I have learned not to argue with Scott's computer, and I was going to
say 57 anyway.

GWYN PRICE : My computer is not scared of Scott's computer. 65 wins.

DAVE TILL : My computer's big brother can beat up Scott's computer's big brother. In a fit of wild optimism, 67 wins.

MICK DOHERTY : Right now, I am not able to provide the extensive thoughts I have on how the Tigers are going to win the Central at 79-83.

It involves several key Toledo Mud Hens, especially future Cy Young Award winner Shane Loux, a huge 58-save year from Franklyn German, a Comeback Player of the Year Award for Rondell White and a Top 10 MVP finish by Ben Petrick.

Oh, and 22 wins from Steve Avery. Yup.

JOE DREW : Ah, but you are wrong. After a horrifying '03 season, the Tigers will come back to break even at 81-81, delighting their fans and astounding the entire baseball world. The loss of the one-game playoff for Central champions notwithstanding (and even though Pudge strikes out with two men on base to end the game), their franchise is reinvigorated for years to come.

MIKE MOFFATT : Super-Secret-Scientific Batman Methodology: The Tigers were the worst team since the '62 Mets. The Mets won 11 more games the following season. Therefore, the Tigers will win 54 games.